When a small business receives a customer complaint it has two basic choices: treat the complaining customer like a pain in the neck, or use the complaint as an opportunity to improve.
Business owners who are adept at handling and learning from complaints know all too well that one complaining customer might represent many others with the same problem who did not speak up. They’re the ones who tell others, complain about you online, and take their business elsewhere. Here are eight ways to deftly handle customer complaints, suggested by Ron Kaufman, author of “Uplifting Service: The Proven Path to Delighting Your Customers” (Evolve Publishing, 2012).
- Thank the customer for bringing it to your attention.“Show appreciation for the complaining customer’s time, effort, communication, feedback, and suggestions,” says Kaufman. “Always keep in mind that the customer didn’t have to come to you at all. They could have simply taken their business elsewhere.”
- Don’t be defensive. It’s easy to get defensive when an angry customer is on the other end of the line or in your face. Just remember that customers with complaints tend to exaggerate situations, so getting defensive will only make it worse. When a customer complains, they’re doing so because they feel wronged in some way. You don’t have to agree with what they’re saying. But you do have to hear them out. That’s how you move the conversation in a positive direction.
- Acknowledge what’s important to the customer. Even if you think the customer’s complaint is unfair, there is something they value that your business didn’t deliver on. Embrace that value. “What the customer wants is to feel right,” says Kaufman. “When you agree with their value dimension, you’re telling them they are right to value this specific thing.” For example, if a customer says your service was slow, then that customer values speed. You might then acknowledge that they deserve quick, efficient service.
- Apologize once, upfront. Every service provider knows that the customer is not always right. But the customer is always the customer. You don’t have to admit you were wrong, but you should apologize for the inconvenience. When you do that, you’re showing understanding and empathy.
- Express your desire to improve. When you understand what the customer values, show them things your business does that helps you perform well in that area. Calmly explain what happened. “Show you are sincere about your commitment to do well in the areas the customer values,” says Kaufman. “At the very least, you can say you’re going to make sure everyone at your business knows about the problem so it won’t happen again.
- Offer helpful information. Part of hearing the customer out is answering any questions they have about the specific situation. Provide additional, useful information as much as you can. If they ask a question that you don’t know the answer to, tell them you’ll find out. And then actually follow through. These are additional opportunities for you to say through your actions that you value their business.
- Contain the problem. Let’s say a family is at a crowded theme park on a hot day. The youngest child in the group starts to have an all-out meltdown. Suddenly, a theme park staff member sweeps onto the scene and whisks the family into a special room. Inside, they find an air conditioned room with water and other beverages, an ice cream machine, a bathroom, a comfortable sitting area, etc. The only thing missing in the room is any connection to the theme park’s brand. That’s because this room is used to isolate customers from the brand until they’re all — parents and children —having a more pleasurable experience. “That’s how you contain a problem,” says Kaufman.
- Recover. Show the customer you care about them, even if you feel your business did everything right. Businesses worry that they’ll get taken advantage of if they offer vouchers, discounts, or freebies as part of their service recovery. But in reality that rarely happens. “Offer the customer something and then explain that you’re doing so as a gesture of goodwill or a token of your appreciation,” says Kaufman. Businesses do this because they know that a successfully recovered customer can become their most loyal advocate.
SCORE is a nonprofit association dedicated to helping small businesses get off the ground, grow and achieve their goals through education and mentorship.